They say it’s not what you know but who you know and I’ve been lucky enough to know a number of inspirational women.
Today I’ve been lucky enough to talk to costume designer Liz Essex-Nye who has just finished working on Helena Bonham Carter’s new film suffragette
What first motivated you to become a costume designer?
It’s difficult to pinpoint when I first decided on this career path, but I think a big influence was the Lord of the Rings films which came out when I was about twelve. I was so fascinated by the way the costumes helped bring the characters to life, not to mention the attention to detail and the epic scale on which they were created.
What qualifications did you need to get into the design business?
Going to University definitely helped, and getting a degree in theatre design was crucial in gaining first hand practical experience in designing for a real live show. I studied at a little relatively unknown University called Rose Bruford College, they’re small and specialise in all things theatre related. I studied theatre Design, which involved set and costume design for the stage.
My first job in the film industry was as a costume trainee, it was totally different to University and it felt a bit like starting all over again learning on the job, but that experience was vital in learning how the industry really works. But I think it’s a lot more than just qualifications and training, you also need creativity and a good eye.
Do you work freelance or do you work as part of a company?
I am freelance, a lot of my work comes through contacts I have made, usually costume designers if I’m working in a costume team or directors or producers if I am the designer. It always pays off staying for the Wrap parties and other social events because I never know who I’ll get talking to and could find my next job.
What project are you working on right now?
Well I have to be honest; I haven’t done that much designing this year, the current level I’m at with designing is on low budget projects that don’t pay very well so this year I have taken a bit of break from it in order to start working on bigger things. I have just finished a job as dresser on the final series of Not Going Out a sitcom for the BBC, which was different from anything else I’ve worked on because it’s filmed in front of a live audience.
Can you tell me what it was like working on Austenland?
It was my very first job out of University as a costume trainee. I think it was quite stressful for the costume team who didn’t have a lot of time to prepare me so I was really thrown in at the deep end. The designer was Annie Hardinge, she does a lot of comedy stuff and it was really great to learn from her about the processes in the costume department and what she expected me to do. Mainly I was dressing the extras, doing laundry and shopping, but did get to know the Director, Jerusha Hess, she was so lovely and I haven’t met another director as nice as she was. so yeah it was hard work and a steep learning curve but also a lot of fun, Jennifer Coolidge kept us all laughing!
Which project do you consider to be your most significant to date?
Well that’s really hard because I have worked in so many different positions on lots of different jobs. I think though I had the most fun on a job I did this year, I wasn’t designing instead I was working in the crowd team. It was a period piece about the suffragette movement. It was significant because I met so many amazing people and it actually lead into a lot of work for me this year, the industry is fickle like that, it only takes one big job like that and you can get a lot of work out of it through the people you meet.
There are a lot of big name actors in Suffragette, what were they like to work with?
Suffragette was quite a big scale film. I was working in crowd and we had a big costume team but we needed it, we had to dress about 300 women all in corsets to be on set by 8am, we started work at 5am on a lot of mornings! being part of the crowd team I didn’t really have too much to do with the big names, other than passing in the corridors or almost bumping into them on set! But it was a real experience to see Meryl Streep deliver a rousing speech to a crowd of suffragettes, that was a bit of a surreal moment when I just stepped back and said to myself “this is my job, I’m getting paid for this!”
What was it like going to Hugh Bonneville’s house?
He had a small role in a film I designed last year which was about a serial killer in Portsmouth. He was playing a Naval commander so I went over with the producer for a costume fitting. He was very nice, and had a lovely house in Hampshire with a very nice kitchen!
Who is your role model?
Well that’s tough. I have been fortunate enough to work with some very talented people on either side of the camera so it would be difficult to choose. I think Ngila Dickson who designed the Lord of the Rings films is a massive inspiration, I’ve not yet met her but would love to work on her team! But I have also started working with a Designer called Jane Petrie who is just so lovely and so fair to her team; I would like to be a designer like her one-day.
Where do you get your influences from?
Well that really depends on what I’m designing, but generally nothing is as good a reference as real life. I like people watching, looking at what ordinary people wear and how their clothes tell the story of their lives, what they do, what they like, how they feel. You can tell a lot about a person from what they choose to wear.
Who would you most like to see wearing your designs?
Well I have people I would like to work with and would be interesting to dress, I think designing for a particular person is more related to fashion. In costume we design for the character, although you do have to consider the artiste and what would suit them. I would love to work with Bill Murray, I think he would have such an interesting perspective on the characters he plays and could be really fun to dress!
What does success mean to you?
Well I’m still in the early stages of my career, and haven’t yet got that one big job that could change everything, but I suppose success to me is getting me one step closer to that job. Small successes along the way add up to a lot in the bigger picture, who knows maybe one day that could mean an Oscar!
What are the most satisfying and dissatisfying parts of your job?
Well it’s not the easiest job in the world, I work very long hours sometimes six day weeks, which makes any kind of social life hard and I don’t always get the best money for it.
I often have to get up at 4 or 5am (depending on how far I have to travel) then work a 12-14 hour day and don’t get home till about 8 or 9pm; by which time I have to go to bed to get up and do it all over again the next day! Each job lasts about 3-4 months so I do this every day for that amount of time and by the end I’m about ready to collapse so usually take a few weeks off before the next job starts.
However somehow it’s all worthwhile when you see your name in the credits or you watch something you worked on and looks so much better than you ever imagined. It’s also nice when your name is passed on because that means you did a good enough job that someone has actually recommended you.
What advice can you offer to anyone wanting to become a costume designer?
Be prepared for a long and often difficult journey! It takes some determination and a lot of grit to climb to the top of that career ladder, you will face a lot of rejection and have to work on some pretty awful projects (often unpaid) to get there. The film industry is a turbulent one, you won’t always get work, but when you do you have to sacrifice everything for the long hours. The pay is unreliable; sometimes you will have more money than you know what to do with and other times you’ll struggle to buy bread and milk. I myself am still on my way there, I’ve had some small successes as a designer on low budget things but I’m nowhere near designing on big things just yet! The best advice is, no matter how tough it gets, don’t give up!
What is the worst advice you’ve been given?
The worst advice is no advice. It’s really hard when you first start out to find people going through the same trials and tribulations, it always seems like everyone else is doing better than you. I think if someone had told me when I first started I might have known what I was in for, but having to find that out on my own was tough. So I guess the moral is don’t be afraid to ask others about their experiences, all costume people have gone through the rocky beginning and yes some have more luck than others, but most will be happy to share their experience and offer whatever advice they can.
What is your best advice for building up a portfolio?
Anyone building a portfolio will have heard all of this before but it really is the best advice! I would say about 20 pages is more than enough, mine is A3 but that because it’s easier to carry around! You should include only your best work and try to keep it as up to date as possible with your most recent projects. You should also tailor it to the job for which you are applying, which does mean changing it for each interview but trust me a tailored portfolio is much easier to talk about in relation to the job during an interview.
How would you describe your style?
Well day to day I have to dress quite practically for work, jeans, jumpers, shirts, practical boots like DM’s, actually its quite 90’s grunge! But when I’m not at work and dress up to go out I like to go with simple elegance, a classic cut dress not too revealing, a nice pair of shoes and some timeless looking jewellery (usually with emeralds, I love emerald jewellery!)
What is your favourite fashion era?
It has to be the 1930’s. The everyday fashions were austere during the war but cut so elegantly, very figure flattering. Women really knew how to look their best, everyone made an effort with their hair and their make-up, I suppose they were just putting on a brave face during difficult times, but I think people today don’t try as hard to look good like they did during the thirties. Oh and then of course there was the silk bias cut evening gown, such a thing of beauty! I dare not even start talking about art deco I could go on for hours!
What have you got lined up for the future?
I have a few projects in the pipeline but at the moment just little things, mostly TV work. I don’t know what the next big thing is, that’s the beauty of the industry you never know what will come up next!
When do you feel the most inspired?
In the morning after a few cups of coffee and my energy levels are high, after lunch its downhill I’m afraid, my concentration is just not as sharp!
If you could up sticks where would you live?
I would love to live in New York it’s such a magical city, a bit like living in London you either love it or you hate it, but if you can see past the expense and the problems it’s a great place to live. That’s what I think New York would be like- except they love an English accent!
What is your guilty pleasure?
TV documentaries, anything factual or educational I find so interesting. History and science are the best documentaries!
How do you like to unwind when you’re not at work?
Watching the above!! But I also love cooking, I have an extensive cookbook collection and love leafing through the pages to find something I really want to make (and eat!) Chocolate recipes are always a winner!
What is your pet peeve?
TV talent shows and the people who win TV talent shows. They are just so staged but everyone still thinks they’re genuine and the acts that win are always so manufactured. I just can’t stand them!
What is your obsession at the moment?
Well I’m planning a trip to Japan soon so at the moment I’m obsessed with all things Japanese! Sushi, anime, I’m even trying to learn some of the language, it’s really hard!
What has been your greatest adventure?
I don’t know, I’ve travelled a lot and seen so many different parts of the world but I think this year has been my biggest adventure as I got married!